Laura Lee always knew she wanted to work in an office. “My mother was an accountant, and I often went with her. I didn’t think of working anywhere else,” she said.
But it was stepping into a virtually empty setting that led her to a career in affiliate sales.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Maine, Lee returned home to Connecticut and was doing cold-calling for payroll service ADP. “I had two ZIP codes in Hartford and Manchester,” she recalled.
Upon the recommendation of a friend, she visited a recruiter. But before going upstairs to the interview, she saw E! listed in the lobby’s directory and wondered if it was the channel she watched. She left a stack of résumés with the search firm, but kept one in hand as she knocked on another door.
When no one answered, she let herself in. Her “hellos” fell on deaf ears, until a gentleman queried, “May I help you?”
“’I’m a big fan of your TV station,’ I said; I didn’t even know that lingo,” she laughed. “I asked if they did ad sales.”
It was a satellite distribution office for the entertainment service. Garrett Smith, now vice president of content distribution at NBCUniversal, gave her what turned out to be more than a primer on affiliate sales and its role in the cable industry.
“Our receptionist was out at lunch,” Smith said. “I liked Laura immediately. She was bright, cheery and articulate, a rock star from the start. She didn’t realize I was conducting an interview. After 20 minutes I told her we had an opening.”
Lee picked up the narrative: “I was so excited when I left. My mother tried to calm me down because she didn’t want me to disappointed, but I went on the interview and got the job with E!,” which at the time had around 40 million subscribers.
SECOND CITY SIGHTS
Her first territories were in West Virginia and Kentucky. After 18 months her boss asked, “Kid, what do you think about going to Chicago?” The move entailed more territories and responsibilities, if not a change in title, but Lee jumped at the chance and spent two and a half years in the Windy City.
It was there that her path crossed with Hallmark Channel predecessor Odyssey Network, which was in about 35 million homes with a lot of part-time carriage.
In 2002, she joined Crown Media, which had rebranded Odyssey into Hallmark Channel. She joined as director of the Central Region, attracted by the opportunities (“I love to build and solve things,” she said) and the brand attributes emanating from 100 years of Hallmark Cards, the majority owner of Crown Media Holdings.
Today, Hallmark Channel counts nearly 90 million subscribers. Spinoff Hallmark Movie Channel, which launched in 2008, is one of the fastest-growing linear services with 52 million homes.
“There is a very high perceived value of being trustworthy and family-friendly; we overindex and benefit from those brand associations in the industry,” Lee said, noting those attributes inform how she and the 170-employee company conduct business, including the 12-person affiliate team that reports to her.
Crown Media CEO Bill Abbott said Lee has “a keen understanding of our position in the marketplace.”
“We don’t have the asset base of a CBS, Disney or NBCU,” Abbot added. “Laura negotiates with a sense of what Crown Media is, recognizing its challenges as well as the opportunities and values we can create.”
Maintaining and growing Crown’s affiliate connections puts Lee on the road quite frequently. “Maybe I’m old-school, but I firmly believe in the personal touch,” she said. “There is nothing more important than face-to-face interaction.”
Lee likens distribution to the foundation of a house. “You don’t have a nice home without solid bearings and beautiful décor,” she said. “Affiliate sales doesn’t work without great programming, which doesn’t work without marketing. And we all need IT. All departments have to work together for us to be successful.”
Lisa Barroso, vice president of distribution, Crown Media Family Networks, came from the accounting department and has reported to Lee for a decade. “Laura is a person with incredible instincts, who knows how to work well with different people and what makes them tick,” Barroso said.
Barroso added that Lee taught her virtually everything she knows about distribution sales: “She’s hands-on and works extremely hard. She has high expectations for us, but gives us the tools and resources we need to succeed and exceed in our jobs.”
Abbott said Lee’s focus of late has extended beyond the linear arena. “We’ve really become aggressive with how our assets work online, and in terms of video-on-demand and TV Everywhere,” he said. “Laura is a key leader in determining where these businesses intersect and how we can monetize them.”
Original content is helping Crown Media make its mark across all platforms. Lee said that between various telefilms, including those under the “Countdown to Christmas” heading; the upcoming Kitten Bowl, the feline version of Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl; and series Cedar Cove, When Calls the Heart and the upcoming Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Hallmark Channel is well-stocked. “Original programming is an incredible platform,” she said. “It gives us various points of differentiation throughout the year.”
When she’s not working or traveling Lee spends time with her partner, Jimmy Saunders, and Leo, their French bulldog. “He’s our little baby,” Lee said. The couple enjoys skiing and the variety of activities New York has to offer.
If she has her druthers, she will also continue to enjoy her gig: “I really love what I do. I hope to have a very long career with Crown Media and help it continue to grow.”
It sounds like her boss shares those sentiments. “Laura continues to be on the cutting edge of business,” Abbott said, “and she will play a critical role in helping to determine our future.”
TITLE: Executive Vice President, Distribution, Crown Media Family Networks
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Vice President of Distribution and Regional Vice President of Network Distribution & Service, Crown Media Family Networks; Regional Manager of Affiliate Sales for E! Entertainment Television, Northeast, Midwest Territories; District Sales Manager, ADP
QUOTABLE: “In the old days it was about video, term, rate and a couple of other provisions. Today, online, VOD and TVE make affiliate sales much more challenging.”
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